I joined the National Youth Workers Convention last night after a full day at church. While having the convention in town means I get to sleep in my own bed, it also means that I’ll be running back & forth from church and and a few other things. So, apologies for a somewhat less-than comprehensive look at NYWC.

A little while back, I had visited the Children’s Pastors’ Conference at the same location (the Town & Country) because my wife was attending. It was at the same location, but right off the bat I could tell that NYWC was going to be different. I’m guessing it was the giant screen Guitar Hero battles being waged in the ballroom hosting the YS store. While I was getting my convention bag, I was wondering why I kept hearing Rage Against The Machine.

Speaking of the bags, YS has done something really incredible. The convention bags come from a company called Freeset, who are “in business for freedom.” Each bag tells this story of freedom in North Calcutta. For 6,000 women, poverty no longer dictates that in order to provide for their children they have no other option but to sell their bodies in prostitution. Now, because they are paid fair wages and work decent hours through Freeset, they can break free from the cycle of degradation and poverty. As their site says, “Freedom has been passed on to the next generation.”

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As I wandered through the massive exhibit hall, I tried to find the fine balance between looking at each booth long enough to figure out if I was interested not looking long enough to make eye contact with the people there in case I wasn’t interested. But, like a good youth pastor, I do love the freebies — and this exhibit hall is a treasure trove of freebies! I gathered a nice water bottle, two t-shirts, a couple of pens, several devotional books and magazines and even a DVD in my first day of hunting-gathering. I’m also entered in several drawings to win an iPod.

An aside: The only time I’ve ever won anything in a contest was in high school. I was listening to the local alternative radio station when a contest in which the tenth caller would win an awesome prize would win. Eagerly, I called into the station. I was surprised when I dialed the phone number and I heard ringing rather than a busy tone, even more surprised when someone answered. Breathless, I asked whether I was the tenth caller. Confused, the DJ asked to which contest I was referring. I explained what I had heard and we put two and two together and realized that I had been listening to a program I had taped (perhaps a primitive form of podcasting?). The DJ got such a kick out of the mixup that, although the original prize had long been claimed, he offered me an alternate prize — an Anthrax VHS cassette. Embarrassment won the day, though, and I never went in to pick up my winnings.

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I had a great conversation with the good people at the Invisible Children booth. Invisible Children began when three college students filmed a documentary giving a glimpse into the horror of the twenty-year Ugandan war, in which children live daily in the real fear of being abducted and forced to fight and kill as part of these warring armies. You can see an Invisible Children clip online here.

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The late evening Worship Together concert featured Matt Maher and Michael Gugnor. While I have seen their names around, I haven’t really had a chance to listen to either one of them. [edit] It seems that Matt Maher’s big hit is his version of Tomlin’s “Your Grace Is Enough.” Matt is best-known for the song he co-wrote with Chris Tomlin, “Your Grace Is Enough”

Before Marko pointed out that Matt was actually the co-author of “Your Grace” and not just someone re-doing the song, I was thinking about the American worship industry’s strange fascination with making big hits out of cover versions of current praise songs — particularly when there is not much substantively different between the versions. Blessed Be Your Name, Here I Am To Worship, Beautiful One and Hang On To You immediately come to mind as recent examples.

The fact that I did not feel a connection with Matt’s songs does not reflect on the level of his performance or execution. His songs are great and he has a nice, clear voice. Rather, I think my heart has been moving in different directions when it comes to worshiping through music. While Matt was leading, I tried to reflect on what songs I do help me worship God. My mind wandered over to Sufjan Stevens’ rendition of the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

So, it was with great pleasure that I received Michael Gugnor Band’s first song which was, of course, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It was nothing like Sufjan’s pared down, intimate take; no, this take featured drum loops, soaring guitars and sweeping synth lines. They took to the stage with passion, and were greeted with folded arms and what appeared to be mostly scowls. I think the youth pastor crowd is pretty tough. In fact, after their concert, I told the band how much I enjoyed their set — but what I really wanted to say was, “Tough crowd, eh?”

But they certainly won me over. I love the fact that they seem to genuinely enjoy playing, and they wore their hearts on their sleeves in worshiping God. On their most recent CD, which I picked up at the merch table afterwards, the track “Fly” features what I imagine must be the only banjo solo meets Queen-referencing harmonized guitar solo in the worship industry. It didn’t hurt their appeal to me that their t-shirt I purchased doesn’t even say their name. It simply reads, “God is green” — incorporating a tree and recycling symbol. Gotta love a worship band that promotes stewardship of the earth!